The suburbs are weird, aren’t they? I mean, by their very nature. Central London has long been a well-defined place. City walls, city gates, parish boundaries, main roads and the river have meant that for centuries the different places in London have been pretty clearly delineated. Granted, there’s the occasional dispute about, e.g., where the West End ends, and there are new places like Fitzrovia and Chinatown to contend with, but by and large you know where you are.
The suburbs, though, are different. You can’t really have suburbs until you have decent transport, so the area we now tend to think of as “suburbia” didn’t really exist until the 19th century. And I know I go on about the railways in London quite a lot, but the fact is that they were absolutely instrumental to the formation of Greater London.
For instance, take where I live – Colliers Wood. Where is Colliers Wood? It’s at the southern end of the Northern Line (incidentally, it’s a geographical irony that the Northern Line goes further south than any other Tube line). When was it founded? Well, basically, Colliers Wood-the-place didn’t exist until 1926, when the Tube station was opened. The area wasn’t exactly desolate and uninhabited, but this place as a whole was known as Merton. Colliers Wood was a local landmark that hadn’t existed for about fifty years when the Tube came along. Had the Underground station been named something different, I might well consider myself a resident of Merton Abbey, or Haydons Road, or Tooting-on-Tube.
The last may seem like a flight of fancy, but know this – there nearly was a suburb with an equally stupid name. When the London and Southampton Railway opened their station a little way south of the busy market town of Kingston, they planned to call it Kingston-upon-Railway. Because it sort-of served Kingston, but not quite. Good sense eventually prevailed, and it was renamed in 1869. The original Surbiton was a small village, also not-quite-served by the new station. However, the station and its railway line were very convenient for commuters, and so a town grew up around the station. The station was called Surbiton, so, inevitably, was the town around it. What if the station had been called something else? Would we even have a Surbiton today? Would we think of Kingston-upon-Railway as the main town, and Kingston-upon-Thames be relegated to the status of “Old Kingston” or some such?
I suspect a few of the suburbs, such as Hampton Wick, wouldn’t really be anything more than a theoretical concept were it not for their railway stations. Hampton Wick has little by way of a focal point other than its station. Certain other suburbs, lacking notability, were absorbed by others as the commuter towns expanded – Lonesome being a case in point, once a village in its own right and now just a part of Streatham.
And this brings me on to the strange case of Fulwell. Fulwell is one of those places that always feels as if it’s on the verge of vanishing, as I had cause to reflect when I went there for a party on Saturday. It’s quite old, its name may have derived from “foul well” (so good work on getting that renamed, I suppose). It doesn’t really have a high street to speak of – a few shops, but nothing to distinguish it from the outlying parts of Twickenham or Teddington, on whose borders it lies. Its major landmark is the bus garage, pictured above right, but that’s more of an obstacle than a focal point. There is a railway station, sure, but it’s an unmanned two-platform branch line affair in a back street. I’m not clear exactly where it begins and ends. I reckon that, were the station to be renamed, the town would cease to exist altogether, torn between Teddington and Twickenham. It’s usually at this point that a bunch of angry residents of the area post a huge rant in the comments section about how I’m wrong and stupid, so scroll down to skip straight to that.
Yet right next to Fulwell, but a short walk from the station, you have Hampton Hill – nothing but a high street really, yet nobody would dispute the validity of its existence. Damned if I understand the suburbs.